Sun, sand, and cerveza combine for a perfect girls’ getaway on Isla Mujeres.
On a cold, rainy, winter afternoon, my friend Laura and I are having lunch at Mi Cocina in Highland Park Village. "I am dying for a vacation," she says, dipping her chip into a bowl of queso. "Let’s round up the girls and go to Mexico."
That’s all it took. A weekend getaway with the girls is the best way I know to rejuvenate the soul. No men, no makeup—just the girls, lying on beach chairs under a grass-topped hut, sipping piña coladas, and reading trashy novels.
That afternoon, I e-mail four other girlfriends, asking if they’d like to join us. "I’m in!" each of them replies, faster than I can hit send. And I didn’t even include dates or prices.
No matter how old we get—and regardless of our marital, mortgage, or financial statuses—women will always jump at a chance to travel together. And it usually involves a beach. Because we live in Dallas, "going to the beach" is the equivalent of "going to Mexico." It’s close enough to ensure minimal travel time and far enough to forget the aforementioned responsibilities. A few months later, we are on a plane to Cancun, but our final destination is Isla Mujeres, which translates, appropriately, to "Island of Women." Located just 8 miles across the Bahia de Mujeres (Bay of Women) from Cancun, the island is only 5 miles long and half a mile wide. Isla Mujeres is a fishing village unspoiled by tourism. The Mayan people who inhabit the island enjoy the simple pleasures of life, much like the visitors who come here year-round for a little R&R.
We step off the ferry after a 20-minute ride, and already we are relaxed. The air is warm and humid, and the streets are crowded with people—some on mopeds, some driving golf carts, others on foot. As I walk down the pier, a local woman named Sammy—a transplanted and very tan American—stops me. "Where are you girls staying?" she asks. "Avalon Reef Club," I reply. At this point she leans in close. "I have to tell you that, a year ago, everyone on the island hated Avalon," she says. "They just didn’t get the spirit of the place. They were too pushy and too demanding, and they had no respect for the locals. But this year is much better." That spirit, I will soon discover, is the laid-back, we-are-all-family-here attitude of this very special place.
We hail a cab, roll down the windows, and breathe in the ocean air as we make the short drive to Avalon Reef Club, a year-old resort on the northernmost tip of Isla Mujeres featuring a tower of guest rooms and suites and a cluster of villas that lines the path to the ocean. Actually, the hotel sits on an island of the island, accessible only by a rickety bridge. This prime spot on Punta Norte (North Beach) ensures that the view from every room is spectacular, whether you’re facing the sandy beach where locals and tourists swim, snorkel, and relax on the sand, or the rocky side, where the sound of the sea crashing on the rocks below lulls you to sleep at night. Across from the Reef Club are Na Balam and Hotel Cabañas Maria del Mar, two smaller, quainter hotels that take advantage of the spectacular Punta Norte location.
For what we want on this girls’ trip—turquoise water, excellent view, comfortable accommodations—the Reef Club hits all the right notes. The architecture is authentic, from the thatched-roof lobby and bar filled with tropical plants and bamboo chairs to the brightly colored, yet simply appointed, rooms accented with rustic stone. The white stucco villas topped with red tile roofs lend a charming Spanish air to the property. And the all-inclusive package—all meals and beverages are included in the price—makes keeping track of expenses easy, especially when there are four people on the same tab. Face it: when you’re running around in a bathing suit, sarong, and flip-flops with your girlfriends, you don’t need high style.
What you do need, however, are some wheels. In the form of a golf cart, that is. True, you can walk to the Plaza, where most of the action in town takes place. But a spin around the island in a golf cart—wind in your hair, sun on your face, ocean to your right and left—isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon. And it’ll get you to some of the island’s highlights.
Our first morning at Reef Club, we soak up some rays on the sandy white beach of the property. At noon we are met by our trusty guide, Octavio, who steps behind the wheel of our golf cart and takes us down the west side of Isla Mujeres, past the local houses and public beaches, all the way to Garrafón National Park on Punta Sur (South Beach), the southernmost tip of the island and the highest point on the Yucatan peninsula. Garrafón affords stunning views of the Caribbean and Cancun across the bay, as well as the best snorkeling on the island. Near the lighthouse, we watch a throng of iguanas basking in the sun and explore the impressive outdoor collection of modern sculptures that surrounds an abandoned Mayan temple dedicated to the goddess Ixchel.
After a quick tour of Garrafón, we hop back into the golf cart and head north, this time along the rocky eastern coastline. "The Mexicans care about the beach; the Americans care about the view," Octavio tells me, which explains why all of the "nice" properties, owned by Americans, line the beachfront on the east. One in particular catches our eye. It doesn’t look like a house at all, but rather a giant, pearly white conch creeping toward the sky. So much for preserving the architecture of the island. The Mexicans on the western shore live modestly in colorful, Caribbean-styled homes. But at least the conch is an appropriate nod to the sea life.
Day two begins much as day one did: roll out of bed, lather up with sunscreen, grab a quick breakfast, and snag a chair on the beach. But this afternoon we are going for the ultimate girl-time adventure—shopping the Plaza and people-watching from one of the many patios along the street. The Plaza is an easy walk from Reef Club, but we take the golf cart instead. Within five minutes, we are happily perusing a market full of colorful sarongs, Mexican wool-blended blankets, hand-carved chess sets, and the ubiquitous colorful pottery in the form of jewelry boxes, vases, and ashtrays. Twelve sarongs, two chess sets, and a hand-painted fish mobile later, we grab a seat at Don Chepo and order four Sols and some chips and creamy guacamole. For something sweet, we stop a tamale vendor as he rides by on his bike and order four deliciously warm corn tamales studded with raisins. As we sit, sip, and snack, we notice that there are as many locals walking along the street as there are tourists, which restores our faith that at least one small corner of our neighbor to the south remains untouched by American culture—unlike the city across the bay, Cancun, which is flooded with Office Depots, Fat Tuesdays, and Burger Kings. Here, the only thing American is the flip side of the menu.
We take our goods and go back to the resort so we can shower and prep for our late-afternoon aromatherapy massages—the only way to fully unwind after several hours of stimulating the Mexican economy. Then we quickly change clothes for our big night out. We decide to splurge at the Porterhouse Grill, a steakhouse on the property (outside of the all-inclusive package) that Octavio swore to us was better than Ruth’s Chris, the upscale American chain that, of course, has an outpost in nearby Cancun. Porterhouse is also a chain—there is one in Cancun at Avalon’s other property—but we are up for the challenge. We select a bottle of Chianti and order starters: lobster bisque and Caesar salad prepared tableside. For entrées we split two 10-oz. filet mignons, which arrive perfectly medium rare and already cut on four warm plates. A side of grilled vegetables, stacked high with red and green peppers, eggplant, and portobello mushrooms, is a perfect complement. For dessert, we settle on a warm chocolate nut brownie that we want—you guessed it—split four ways. We are each served a perfectly miniature version of the original, complete with a tiny scoop of chocolate ice cream. We roll back to our villa happy as clams.
Our last morning on Isla Mujeres, we chat over breakfast of chorizo omelets and Mexican pastry. "So," I say. "Where are we going for our next vacation?"